The new Czech studio that's promising backers Game of Thrones without the dragons.
When we were kids, we once made a rough estimation of how much it would cost to build a theme park in the backyard. It didn't have to be anything too fancy - it didn't need costumed mascots or live shows and we already had rabbits so no need for a petting zoo. However, it would need a good sized roller coaster, which we would design and then have our dad construct from lumber. The project folded when the predicted cost of the venture spiraled north of $100 - more money than a lone four-or-five-year-old backer was willing to invest, and more labor than his dad was willing to commit (unions, eh?).
At first glance, the developers of Kingdom Come: Deliverance and that little kid sketching out designs for a theme park death trap have a lot in common. "We are trying to mix the freedom of the freedom of Skyrim, the storytelling of The Witcher, the setting of Mount and Blade and the tough combat of Dark Souls into one single package for people who like those games," says creative director Daniel Vávra, bold-facedly. And in the CryEngine, no less. The target for the project on crowdfunding site Kickstarter? $500,000.
If that were the whole story, we’d charitably call it fanciful. Happily, it’s not. Kingdom Come's beautiful open-world landscaping job is actually being paid for in large by an outside investor, who's already poured about $1.5 million into the project and, according to Vávra, agreed to fund it further if the Prague-based developers (who individually have long experience working on games including Forza, Arma, Crysis 3 and the Mafia series) could prove there was a market by drumming up their own half-million through crowdfunding. It's a compromise between traditional funding and Kickstarter, but for Vávra, also the only way that he and his team could ensure both the cash and the artistic freedom to make the game they wanted.
"Big publishers don't want to take any risks, so there is zero chance to work on something interesting [with them]" he says. Despite following in the huge boot-prints of Dark Souls and The Elder Scrolls, the publishers Vávra and the team approached were skeptical that the game would make money on next-gen consoles, believing that the future of games like Kingdom Come lay in free-to-play MMOs and mobile games.
"The things we want to achieve could not be done on then-current-gen consoles, not to mention iPads or smartphones," Vávra says, dismissively. Since then of course, the PS4 and Xbox One have both launched to much acclaim, selling millions in a matter of hours. "I would say, that the situation and [publishers'] mindset has changed drastically. It seems that consoles are not going anywhere and their predictions were totally wrong."
As if to prove a point, Kingdom Come smashed its funding target, currently sitting at almost $1.5 million in pledges in its own right. But even with the cash in hand, that checklist of games is massively ambitious - hubristic, even. Releasing in three 'acts', the size of Act One's in-game Kingdom of Bohemia, for instance, will rival at least two triple-A titles that set the bar for open world games on the PS3 and Xbox 360, with nine square kilometres of open countryside to explore.
Lets say that Act One map is almost as big as Oblivion and most likely bigger than Red Dead Redemption," says Vávra. "We're trying to make the world little bit more natural, so in terms of frequency of events, points of interest and so on, it's going to be closer to Red Dead Redemption.
Although comparisons with Oblivion's fantastical realm of Cyrodiil will be inevitable (alchemy is a skill mentioned in the trailer, so expect a return of the tranquil flower-picking minigame), in the interests of a realistic depiction of medieval Europe, there won't be any ogres or fire demons lurking in the foliage. Instead, Warhorse Studios are basing as much of the design as possible on real-world locations, including existing Czech towns and castles. And so far, what the team have built is very pretty indeed: dappled forests, rolling meadows and partly submerged caves with beautifully lifelike torchlight glinting off the damp walls. Kickstarter might be a byword for humble when it comes to games, but Kingdom Come looks anything but.
"I love history," says Vávra of the inspiration behind Kingdom Come's fifteenth century setting. "My grandparents took me to almost every castle in Bohemia when I was a kid and I'd been drawing pictures of castles and large scale medieval battles since I was four years old. So, I always wanted to make a historic game and since I like RPGs, it seemed like good fit.”
[Kingdom Come] all takes place on the background of real historical events and we're trying to be as accurate and authentic as possible. We're using real world locations, real terrain, we're reconstructing how buildings and castles looked at the time with historians, we consult on clothing with our history people and our combat system is being built together with real swordsmen.
Like Oblivion, the story Kingdom Come will tell will be reliant on the choices you make and the way you play. If you want to creep about as a skulking assassin or ride into battle on horseback brandishing a flail, that's fine with Warhorse. If you'd rather travel from town to town singing as a bard, well, that's fine too. Sort of. The stated goal is to create an epic, non-linear story without resorting to usual staples of dragons and magic. "Dungeons, no Dragons" as Warhorse puts it.
"Fantasy might be mainstream in games, but when you turn on the TV, go to cinema or library, its quite the opposite - history is the mainstream," says Vávra. "People like TV shows like Vikings, Rome, The Tudors; movies like Braveheart. And the same people also play games, but there aren't many games being made for them. The only thing they can do is buy the next closest thing: a fantasy RPG. But if you look at the success of Total War series or indie games like Mount and Blade, you realize that the audience is there."
The game's story revolves around the plight of your unlucky protagonist, whose career as a humble blacksmith takes an unexpected turn when his family are slain by an invading army and he becomes embroiled in a plot to seize power by an unlawful king. Unlike your standard fantasy RPG, you've not been blessed with a special birth sign, your coming was not foretold in the stars. You'll need to eat and sleep regularly, as in many games' hardcore modes (and, you know, real life). In fact, you're so pointedly un-magical that food left in your inventory will rot and go bad. Dragonborn you are not.
"I wanted to tell a story of a regular guy who is drawn into big historic events by accidental misfortune," says Vávra. "I wanted to illustrate those historic events using the story of this character… to give you the experience of what it was like to be a knight in medieval times.”
"A single player game is the ideal storytelling medium for that. Multiplayer wasn't considered and would also have been very complicated technically – physics-based, first-person melee combat [with multiplayer] would have been very problematic for a team our size."
Not that humble origins necessarily make for humble swordsmen. Kingdom Come's combat is one of its proudest, loudest boasts - as it had better be, for a game that's setting itself up for comparison with Dark Souls. Fully motion-captured, Kingdom Come's swordplay is designed to feel heavy - swings have momentum that can leave the player and opponents off-balance, while swords clashing together bounce realistically off each other, replacing the all-too-common sense of plastic swords brushing off invisible walls that pervades older fighting games. Combatants can stab, swing, block or feint to the side in first-person perspective - and of course pull off some brutal finishers like ducking under an incoming blow to disembowel an opponent.
"The [motion capture] guys we work with are one of the best people around," says Vávra. "They have a fencing academy, they do stunts and consult for Hollywood movies, so they've worked with Jackie Chan, or on movies like Hellboy, the Borgia TV series and so on. We're not into the theatrical stuff, but rather [we want] authentic techniques and their sword master Petr Nusek [has been training for] 25 years and is a master in the Italian, German and French schools of fencing."
As was the lot of medieval Europe's underclass, you'll also be marched into full-scale battles between armies, complete with foot soldiers, divisions of archers and cavalry units. It's in these larger skirmishes that Warhorse plans to take full advantage of the PS4 and Xbox One's enhanced graphical oomph.
"We aren't the first to do large scale battles," says Vávra, again citing action-and-light-fantasy RPG Mount and Blade. "But making [them] is a really big challenge. Rendering complex characters is probably the most GPU-intensive task and rendering hundreds of them is a nightmare. We are still investigating this area, though of course we would like to have as many [characters] as possible. We will need to pull a lot of tricks to make it possible. What was shown in our trailer [a clash between dozens of knights in an overcast poppy field] was all real-time, but there is still lot of work to be done."
With all the promises Warhorse are making, "a lot of work" sounds like a glorious piece of understatement. Without seeing the game's progress so far (and you can check it out for yourself in the game's Kickstarter video higher up the page), there's simply no way we'd believe - no matter how experienced the team – that a Kickstarter game could so brazenly challenge titans of triple-A development Vávra so casually namedrops.
And yet, there's our former blacksmith: riding through the glades, preparing for a grand battle and sticking it (literally) to the man with the tip of broadsword. How these individual parts can be stretched and molded into the whole that Vávra and the team are promising, it's too early to say. As for its would-be publishers original vision of a Kingdom Come mobile title, that's still a long way off for Vávra.
The time when smartphones will be as powerful as PS4 or Xbox One will come one day, and when it does, we will be able to port the game," he says. "But it will take quite a few years until we get there.
Whatever platforms it emerges on, make no mistake: Warhorse Studios won’t stop until that roller coaster is ready.